Thesis: Going Public

I’ve been thinking about different ways to engage people in my thesis exhibition, now that I’ve removed the idea of a microscope from the exhibit. My favorite part of the microscope idea was that it would allow people to directly observe soil microorganisms in a way that they might not otherwise be able to do. Substituting an actual microscope experience with pre-captured videos didn’t feel as exciting to me, because you can always look those videos up on YouTube. I liked the immediacy of the hands-on approach, but there were other considerations that made it less than idea. So, I’ve been reconsidering my approach over the past week or so, and thinking back to what I hope people will get out of the exhibit.

The primary takeaway is that soil is amazing. I also want people to realize that soil isn’t some special thing that only shows up in gardens and nature preserves; that it’s something we all interact with on a daily basis. It is, quite literally, the ground beneath our feet.

I’ve also been thinking about how to use this project as a way to foster conversation, because part of my thesis argument is that design can contribute to science communication by finding new ways to support public dialogue around scientific topics.

I was thinking about personally collecting a hundred different soil samples from all over the state, to show the diversity of soils and the richness of information all around us, if we have the interest and knowledge to understand it. And then I thought that it would be interesting to compare soils from different states, and it occurred to me that I have friends and family scattered all around the country.

On Tuesday, I sent out some feelers by email, asking around to see if anyone would be interested in mailing me a bag of dirt for the exhibition display. By Thursday, I had a few people signed on, with a pretty good geographic distribution: people from California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington state had all said they’d be happy to send in a sample or two.

I floated the idea in thesis class on Thursday, and it met with a pretty positive reception. We also got our final space constraints for the exhibit, so this is a good week to be reshaping all of our ideas, anyway.

Yesterday, I sat down and wrote up a quick submission form with instructions for collecting and mailing the samples. Branden posted it to his Facebook feed at around midnight last night, and we woke up this morning to 13 more people signed on: from Ohio, Hawaii, Maine, Florida, Texas, North Carolina and New Jersey.

So now, the question is how to manage all of this interest, and how to use it to generate excitement for both the topic and the project. I threw together a really simple webpage last night with a map of the US to display points where the samples are coming from. The prototype version only has simple hover behavior, where it shows the sample title when you mouse over a point. But I could imagine this expanded out to include photos of the different samples and their stories, as they come in. I’m building it into the template design for the main site, so that it can be incorporated into the final project, as well. This would help people participating in the project to see its progress, and could help to fill in gaps in the map.

But I also noticed an interesting thing happening in the comments on Branden’s Facebook post. Two people from Ohio started talking about where they were from, so that they could make sure to get samples from different places. A simple thing, maybe, but it made me think about how interesting it would be to find a way for all of these different people to talk to each other, and to post photos of their samples and stories as they send them. Rather than just mailing off a sample to me for an exhibition they won’t necessarily see, they would be able to share it with a growing community of people interested in the project – to see where other people are coming from, and how they experience the soil. Because it’s web-based, it would also give my far-flung friends, relatives, and acquaintances a way to participate in the exhibition and the project, even if they can’t be in Boston in April to stand in that physical space.

I created a Facebook group this afternoon, to collect all of those different stories and conversations, and as a place to post updates and information as the project continues.

This has all come together very organically, and I can’t say that I have much of a plan for where it’s going at the moment, but it feels like it has a lot of potential, both for creating a meaningful physical display, and for creating a community that lives beyond the exhibition period. I’m excited to see what happens!